Notes from a Tramp Printer, Part 3

This part of Jim Dissette’s post has to do with artwork for “Beanball” as well as the printshop and students at Washington College, who helped create this special letter press edition of One Story’s 100th issue. Enjoy!


The printshop at the O’Neill Literary House is a printer’s dream. For years, Mike Kaylor, the Master Printer there has collected presses and printing equipment for decades. Chandler & Prices, a Vandercook 4, type and furniture trays, binding equipment, cases of type, a huge worktable, long vertical windows for lots of available light, enthusiastic printer’s devils (the trade term for a shop assistant) all make for a wonderful place to create a book. Just stepping into its environment creates the right frame of mind to take on a printing project. Along with newly added Mac workstations (one monitor so big you could work on it from across the room), the Literary House pressroom is one of the most inviting work spaces I’ve experienced.

[Jim Dissette talks with Emma Sovich, a student at Washington College, a printer’s devil, and the author of The Composing Stick, a blog about the printing arts.]

We were ready for the project and kept our fingers crossed that the plates would arrive no later than Saturday Dec. 1st. And they did.

Another issue in designing a book are the prerequisites. It is not unusual for a contracted book design to embrace certain styles, sizes, colors or the like to meet the standards of the publisher. In this case, it was requested that I design a book the same size as the trade edition to be published by One Story. One Story’s format is 5×7, so that would be mine. Since I didn’t want text running edge to edge on the page, my smaller text area would run the book into more pages than I expected, 76 pages, but the pages needed to have breathing room, especially in light of the intensity of the story. So the die was cast–there would be close to 4,500 passes on the hand press to finish in nine days. I prayed that the ink would dry quickly enough to print on the second side of the sheets without ink offsetting onto the cylinder and smudging that page.

By the third day I was getting to know Emma Sovich, Mac Boyle and Katrina Skefos, all students at Washington Collegeand all smitten with the book arts. Each of them helped in ways I’m not sure they appreciate. Working this quickly requires decisions made on the spot–ink colors, binding colors, title-page design, endpaper choices. There was no time for second chances. We all worked on a gut, intuitive level and I listened to their reactions when I showed them a sample, reading between the lines of their not wanting to insult my ideas. We broke through that formality quickly with “Um, that sucks, Jim,” or “Not bad.” They had good printer’s eyes and I’m sure Mike Kaylor had everything in the world to do with that.

Probably the most important element in book design–aside from format size, typographic choices, paper and ink–is the art chosen to accompany it. “Accompany,” however, doesn’t convey clearly what I like to see happen with art in a fine press book–art should be a visual parallel narrative to the text. Inappropriate choices can destroy the bridges between text, image and reader. In my humble opinion, art should not be so much a pause or an aside in the flow of the narrative, but a compelling leap onward to the story. Should it be a line drawing, a metal intaglio etching, a linoleum or woodcut illustration? Each process has its own intrinsic “attitude,” from the fine hairline illustrations of a pen and ink drawing turned into a copper plate to the bolder strokes of a linoleum but. These are the questions book designers ask as they get a feel for the text and search for a sense of unification, not embellishment and addition of disparate parts just for the sake of “eye-candy.”

For “Beanball” and its critical time limitations, wood illustrations and etchings were out of the question. In most cases, working with artists can take months of dialogue and proofs, often with the artist actually printing the pages of their own art and sending them back to the press for the text printing. We had no time for that. Luckily, Mary Rhinelander made herself available for the project. She and I had worked together before on a project for the Literary House Press,(a find press edition of an original essay by John Barth, called “Browsing”) and share an intuitive and trusting approach to the development of images to be used in mutual projects. Because she is such a good and close reader of any material to be printed I was able to feel secure about entrusting her with total control over what she wanted to express. I was elated when the art came in. If a book designer can say, after seeing the final art, that they could not envision it any other way, that’s always a good sign.

Her three linoleum illustrations were perfect for the story: emblematic of the mystery and the wonderfully strange juxtaposition of baseball and noir-ish, Dashiell Hammett-like mystery.

[One of Mary’s illustrations for “Beanball”, hot off the press]

At this point, current technologies were again about to dovetail with a 600 year old technique: we scanned the prints from Mary’s original art and sent them to the photopolymer plate maker, Box Car Press in Syaracuse, New York.

As in the past, Mary provided me with printed proofs of her art, not the linoleum blocks themselves. Working this quickly, printed proofs gave me the latitude to scan, resize or to crop them if necessary, or even to use smaller parts of an illustration for additional images in the book. Thankfully Literary House Press offers a well-equipped design station with a new high-res Epson scanner. Each illustration proof was scanned at 1200 dpi, translated into bitmap art files and contrast balanced in Photoshop using the Threshold function, an often harrowing moment of best-guesses which, in this case, (and along with the fine work done by the plate maker), proved to be perfectly balanced.

Let there be no doubt that subtle (or dramatic) changes often occur with this kind of translation from original art. Going through two interpretations (the scan and then the photogrpahic film process for the photopolymer, magnesium or copper plate) will alter the original art. Sometimes finer lines may drop out while other lines may thicken changing the visual weight, the nuances of the art. In my experience most of the processes have pleased artists involved, but when there’s time, it’s always a good idea to allow the artist to approve the transitional image printed as it would look in the book.

When we had the plates, we were ready to ink the presses and run.

 Tune in tomorrow for the final post of “Notes from a Tramp Printer” by Jim Dissette.

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